There is no arguing the fact that James Bond, fictitious agent 007 in Her Majesty’s Secret Service, has become a cultural icon. Like Doctor Who, this staple British franchise has managed to endure more than half a century of re-casting, re-imagining and re-booting. The underlying sexism may have been toned down in the 90’s, but the essentials of the character have managed to survive the last fifty-nine years nevertheless.
Just about every person on the planet has a notion of who James Bond is after the 23 films that have been released. (Actually there were two other films attached to the name that are disregarded as official canon, but let’s not digress.) We all know that he likes his martini shaken (which is, by the way, considered the wrong way to mix them to true connoisseurs), and always looks good in evening clothes.
However, the character was not invented in the movies. Ian Fleming novels are actually quite different than nearly all of the films. In fact, only Dr. No, From Russia with Love, Goldfinger, Thunderball and Casino Royale even attempt to follow the story line of their literary namesakes. Fleming’s novels, though still colourful, are considerably darker, grittier and more philosophical than nearly all of the films. (There is also not a single space-laser to be found in any of them.)
Fleming himself had been an intelligence officer during the war, and some of the events in his novels were based on his experiences and the stories he heard from others. He also had an incredible eye for detail, and was fantastic at making you feel like you could see every detail of his settings, including the character’s wardrobe.
Also, contrary to the common notion, world domination rarely figured into the stories. The cliches of gadgets and flag-emblazoned parachutes came long after the author’s death, and had little to do with the work he created in his books.
For example, the novel The Spy Who Loved Me is, in fact, about a young woman from Quebec. The book is principally focused on her and her back story, and James Bond only enters into the plot later on in the novel when she runs afoul of some gangsters who hold her hostage while she is working at a motel.
The film of that title is about a marine-life obsessed billionaire with a submarine-kidnapping freight liner that wants to destroy the world with nuclear weapons… I can see how they made that connection.
Also, the character of Bond is much more complex than the swaggering misogynist that most people expect. Unlike the films, Bond became progressively less and less stable over the course of the novels, eventually becoming a total emotional wreck after the murder of his wife. While the cinematic version got a new breath of life every few years, the literary character had to endure the psychological scars of being frequently tortured and/or watching his loved ones die. (The fact that they are working this into the films presently is what I like best about the Daniel Craig era.)
‘It’s all very fine, ‘ said Bond, ‘but I’ve been thinking about these things and I’m wondering who’s side I ought to be on. I’m getting very sorry for the Devil and his disciples such as the good Le Chiffe. The Devil has a rotten time and I always like to be on the side of the underdog. We don’t give the poor chap a chance. There is a Good Book about goodness and how to be good and so forth, but there’s no Evil Book about evil and how to be bad. The Devil has no prophets to write his Ten Commandments and no team of authors to write his biography. His case has gone completely by default. We know nothing about him but a lot of fairy stories from our parents and schoolmasters. He has no book from which we can learn the nature of evil in all it’s forms, with parables about evil people, proverbs about evil people, folk-lore about evil people. All we have is the living example of the people who are least good, or our own intuitions.
‘So,’ continued Bond, warming to his argument, ‘Le Chiffre was serving a wonderful purpose, a really vital purpose, perhaps the best purpose of all. By his evil existence, which foolishly I have helped to destroy, he was creating a norm of badness by which, and by which alone, an opposite norm of goodness could exist. We were privileged , in our short knowledge of him, to see and estimate his wickedness and we emerge from the acquaintanceship better and more virtuous men.’
Thus expostulated James Bond while he was recovering from his vicious genital torture in the first novel, Casino Royale. Somehow I doubt the character will ever fully voice those opinions in a film, though snippets of that scene slipped into the last two movies.
So if you enjoy spy thrillers and have not actually read Fleming’s original novels, I enthusiastically recommend that you do so. They are probably not what you expect at all.